Book Review: Is This The China That Can’t?

Carl Minzner, a law professor at Fordham Law School in New York, has displayed absolutely stunning timing, coming out with a book saying China faces the prospect of slipping into decline because of authoritarianism at almost exactly the time that Xi Jinping appears to have bulldozed the National People’s Congress into in effect declaring him president for life by vaporizing the limitation on presidential service to two terms.

“This is not to say that regime collapse is imminent or even likely,” writes Minzner, who prior to joining Fordham as an expert on Chinese law and politics served as Senior Counsel for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, as an International Affairs Fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, and as Yale-China Legal Education Fellow at the Xibei Institute of Politics and Law in Xi'an. “The Qing dynasty continued on for decades after its peak, even as problems of elite governance and social unrest steadily worsened,” he notes.

But, he says, the relative, if halting progress towards some form of democracy under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao has obviously been halted and reversed, and what is important is that the DNA for building a civic society has never made it out of the Petri dish. Lawyers, journalists and human rights activists are being thrown in jail in increasing numbers under Xi.

“There is almost no chance of a stable, liberal democracy emerging in such a situation. All institutions outside the Party itself are weak, underdeveloped and lack legitimacy. No alternative social forces or political movements or any size are waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces if the existing system should shatter.”

Much of the book is a valuable, clear-eyed tabulation of how, since Xi came to power in 2013, his grip has tightened. And, he says, China is different from the Soviet Union, which shattered and came apart. It won’t. “China’s reform era has produced what the Soviet Union lacked: a broad coalition of “winners “ – urban residents, homeowners, SOE employees, whose comfortable lifestyles are intimately intertwined wit the existing political system.”

Indeed. As we know, from the time of Deng Xiaoping’s Opening Up in the 1970s to the present, China uplifted 800 million people out of dire poverty – by far the most astonishing economic transformation in history. Today it is China and not the United States that is driving the global dialog, not just on trade but on investment, infrastructure development and, given the vacuum that has opened in the west, in diplomacy. It was Xi Jinping at Davos, not anybody from the Trump administration, who starred.

But it was Tiananmen in 1979 that put paid to liberalization – that and Glasnost in Russia and the end of the Soviet Union. The tentative moves for village elections, any kind of accountability, is over.

“Look behind the shiny nameplates and imposing government buildings,” Minzner writes. “For all of China’s surface stability, there is a deep absence of institutionalized norms.” That lack of institutionalized norms extends all the way from parents’ inability to deal with recalcitrant children to the most important foundations of government.

“Building real institutions is not a question of a party secretary (or parent) pounding his desk to mandate better systems of control. Nor is it a matter of issuing more bombastic exhortations of belief,” he says. “It requires agency – a regular back-and-forth between ruled and ruler alike through organized channels of governance that build popular faith in them as channels to resolve grievances and manage social tensions. The golden era was China’s golden opportunity to slowly construct such institutions. It failed to do so. Gradualist reforms that Chinese officials and citizens themselves had pursued…were slowly choked by an increasingly toxic atmosphere.” Any hope that Hong Kong and Taiwan would point the way to reform for the motherland has been dashed. Hong Kong is being strangled. Taiwan, with perhaps the most vibrant democracy in Asia, is under deep threat.

Xi’s corruption campaign, which has jailed 1.3 million officials from lowly clerks to such tigers as the former security chief Zhou Yongkang, former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, ex-presidential aide Ling Jihua and general Guo Boxiong, is as much a vehicle to rid the country of Xi’s competition, Minzner writes.

Taken together, this lack of ambition to institutionalize workable government norms and a long list of other missing foundations – at a time when China is about to join the rest of the world’s major nations with vastly slowing growth – means the era is over, Minzner theorizes.

But is it. Look at Singapore, where only a façade of democracy exists, and where free expression has been strangled since Lee Kuan Yew came to power in 1959. Admittedly Singapore is a much more manageable 5.6 million people. But even today, the People’s Action Party, headed by Kuan Yew’s son Hsien Loong, is contemplating new legislation that would strangle dissent even more.

When the Asian Wall Street Journal was kicked out of Singapore in 1988, the newspaper’s editors, in a blistering editorial, said the lack of freedom of the press would come back to haunt the island republic and that basically it was never going to count for much. Today Singapore’s per-capita GDP ranks fourth in the world and second in Asia after Macau on a PPP basis. Sadly both China and Singapore are demonstrating that economic wellbeing has decoupled from the practice of democracy. One wishes Minzner were right. But doubts are growing.